Remember learning to ride a bike? How many times did you fall off before you got the hang of it? And even after you learned, there were occasional mishaps -- but, chances are, you got back on.
Pursuing diet and fitness goals is a lot like that: from time to time you'll fall off. The key to getting back on is to acquire the skills and self-knowledge that will enable you to recover after a relapse.
"Studies show people who lose weight and keep it off, and people who gain it back, have the same number of slips," says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, author of Diet Simple. But "people who keep it off are better able to problem-solve; are more likely to have, and call on, a support system of friends, family, or professionals; and take control of their environment."
How can you become one of those people? Tallmadge, along with three people who are experienced at overcoming weight-loss obstacles, shared their top 11 tips for sticking with it.
1. Have a vision of success.
"The mind is such a strong tool. Use it to achieve what you want," says Tallmadge, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
For example, she suggests, "see yourself dancing on New Year's Eve in a fabulous black dress, or fantasize about your family's reaction when you see them for the holidays." Then apply that vision every day to help you stay motivated.
2. Remind yourself what's at stake.
Herb Ketteler, a pest-control technician in suburban Cincinnati, has gone from 305 pounds to 210 in a little over a year. It's the second time he's lost a significant amount of weight. The first time, he kept it off for five years, but regained it after an injury kept him from exercising. The weight-loss medication Meridia helped him lose much of the weight this time, but he says he's remained motivated even after going off the drug.
"It's not healthy to keep gaining and losing tremendous amounts of weight," says Ketteler, 45. "This has to be forever."
The same motivation has worked for Annie Nowlin, a former registered nurse and triathlete from Chicago. Nowlin had been athletic all her life, but her weight shot up to 197 after she began taking corticosteroid drugs to treat lupus four years ago (weight gain is a common side effect of these drugs). More recently, fibromyalgia has limited her ability to exercise. Her weight still fluctuates, and weight loss is slow, but she remains determined.
"It's when I tell myself that the last four years have been hell and I deserve to live, that I'll have four scoops of Healthy Choice ice cream instead of one" says Nowlin, 52. "What gets me back on the wagon is thinking I'm just the right age for a heart attack; let's not invite any more problems.
"I also remind myself I'll have to buy fatter clothes, and I can't justify spending that money."
3. Control your environment.
Successful losers don't rely on willpower, Tallmadge tells WebMD.
"Fill your home with healthy, wholesome foods," she says. "Have healthy foods in the refrigerator so you're less likely to stop and grab something greasy on the way home from work. Some people think they can have cookies in their home and use willpower. Then they get mad at themselves when they eat them."
What if your family isn't dieting? You can still take control and keep tempting foods out of your kitchen, Tallmadge says: "If the family wants desserts, they can go to the ice cream shop for one serving."
Travel writer Mary Mihaly of Cleveland gained 75 pounds after she quit smoking in 1992. Today, after following the principles of the Weight Watchers diet and adding exercise to her life, she's just 15 pounds from her goal weight. Mihaly says she is OK with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in her house. But she knows that having chips or real butter around would be her undoing.
"I can limit myself to two Peanut Butter Cups, but I could make a meal of a Diet Coke and bag of chips or fresh bread and sweet butter" says Mihaly, 53. "Instead I have light butter, and there's no way I'm going to slather that all over bread."
Likewise, Nowlin can often prevent a slip by telling herself there's fruit in the refrigerator. And Ketteler takes fruits and vegetables to work to make sure he has something healthy to munch on. "I probably buy five pounds of carrots a week," he says. "By the end of the day I'm sick of carrots."
4. Don't let yourself get too hungry.
Tallmadge says the biggest cause of overeating is undereating. "People go too long without eating, then pig out when they're ravenously hungry," she says. "Including planned snacks in your routine is a great way to prevent binges."
Now, he allows himself to eat whatever he wants, but he controls portion size and doesn't let himself get too hungry.
5. Know what makes you vulnerable to overeating.
This is another way Ketteler avoids slips. "After midnight, I fall apart," he says. "Even when I was on Meridia I would lose control and start eating." How does he avoid late-night temptation? "I go to bed."
For another person, temptation might come in the late afternoon, at the office vending machine, or when at a party or social event. The key is to know where your problem areas are and have a plan for dealing with them.
6. Beware restaurant overeating.
Temptation often strikes at restaurants, where rich foods and supersized portions can sway even the most determined dieter. Especially if you eat out often, look at it as a chance to practice good portion control. "There isn't a law that says you have to order an entrée every time you eat out," says Tallmadge. Pay attention to your appetite, and order a dinner salad or appetizer instead of a main dish. Or take half home in a doggie bag.
7. Plan indulgences.
Rigid diets don't work, says Tallmadge, who has a weight-loss counseling practice in Washington, D.C. "I teach people how to slip and bounce back. Include treats each week without feeling guilty. Have a brownie every Friday."
Ketteler allows himself to indulge at lunch one day a week. "I might have two slices of pizza," he says. "That way my body doesn't send out cravings."
8. Forgive yourself.
Mihaly tells WebMD that she never refers to indulgences as slips. "When I spent two weeks in Morocco, I enjoyed the culture and cuisine. It wasn't a slip. When I indulge over the holidays, I call it enjoying the holidays."
She applies the same principle to fitness. She's only begun exercising in the last couple of years, and she has progressed from struggling to walk a mile along Lake Erie to two or three miles.
"I've taken this week off exercise," she says. "It's raining, and I'm getting ready for a street sale. I'm looking forward to next week, but tonight I'll be lazy and enjoy it."
9. Work to change negative thought processes.
Something that helps Mihaly stick to her plan is a fundamental shift she made in her life four years ago.
"I went to feng shui training and learned about being in a mind/body place as opposed to being judgmental," she says. "It carries over into how I view myself and relationships. The first day of training, we had to read a pledge aloud, saying we would only allow people and influences into our lives that supported us."
As a result, she's distanced herself from some powerful negative messages that she had held onto for 50 years. "In some families you get a lot of external stuff. I've grown enough that I can shut it out. I've stopped beating myself up."
10. Have a cheering section.
Having to account to someone else gives you a reason to hang in there when you can't muster determination from within. It doesn't matter where the support comes from -- a spouse, friend, co-worker, online "buddy," or whoever.
Ketteler gets motivation from people he sees on his service route as a pest-control technician in northern Kentucky. "I see the same 350 customers every month or so, mostly women, and they've all commented," he says. "They're watching my weight for me."
11. Remember that you have to keep working at it.
"Two-thirds of our population is overweight, which means it's not natural to be slim and fit," says Tallmadge. "We don't walk two miles to work and back and forage for food every day, or live at a spa.
"It's easy to see thin people and think how lucky they are, but if they're over 30 or even 20, they're working at it," she says. "Being slim and fit is something we have to pursue and nurture, like happiness or friendship."